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How athletic hobbies benefit women’s leadership

How female leaders boost their boardroom skills outside of their corporate lives

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When I decided to work on a PhD in leadership, it didn’t take long to settle on a research topic. As an ex-CEO and a marathon runner, I had to find out if there was a connection between leaders’ effectiveness and their passionate non-work interests.

The subject of “serious leisure” was not new to career coaches and to the popular press, but academic research had been virtually silent about it. With my research team, we started by inventorying public information on the serious leisure of top CEOs (those leading companies included in the S&P 500 index, the largest listed corporations in the US) and on how these CEOs see the contribution of their passionate hobbies to their leadership.

I then conducted private research interviews with over 20 CEOs of major US companies on this subject. But, while their hobbies were diverse, the vast majority of the CEOs in our study were men. When we shared our insights, many female leaders wrote to ask “where are the women?”

Women are still rare at the top of the corporate ladder, with only 24 females among the CEOs of S&P 500 companies. Eight among them are known to either practise a sport passionately or to have a history of athletic achievement in high school or college, from Anthem CEO Gail Boudreaux, who is in the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, to Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman with her black belt in taekwondo.

‘It may also help her perfect a very delicate balancing act: negotiating the masculine-feminine traits double bind.’

Although the numbers are too small for any statistical conclusions, this is a markedly higher proportion of a sports identity among top female CEOs compared to about 15% for their male counterparts. Not what first comes to mind when thinking about the athlete-CEO

What does a sports identity mean, for a woman leader? To find out, I spoke with six female leaders about their athletic interests.

Adena Friedman, CEO of Nasdaq, an S&P 500 corporation with over 4000 employees, continues to practice taekwondo. Veronique Laury, CEO of Kingfisher, a FTSE 100 company with 80,000 employees, loves horse riding and is a former show jumper. Karen Lynch, the president of Aetna, a passionate runner, commands a leading insurance and health care organization with 50,000 employees. Frances Allen is a skier to be reckoned with and the CEO of Boston Market, a 12,000-employee restaurant chain.

Sandra Mjoll Jonsdottir Buch is the founder of Platome Biotechnology (awarded Startup of the Year by Icelandic Business Magazine), a black belt in taekwondo and former member of Iceland’s taekwondo national team. Karolina Drach-Kowalczyk, director of marketing for an investment bank in Warsaw, is in the middle of a multi-year project to swim across five straits that separate continents, starting with the Bosphorus and ending with the Panama Canal.

At first sight, they experience the benefits of their non-work interests similarly to male executives. For example, they too need an intense nonwork activity to force their mind off work and refresh their strategic thinking. “Once you start it, you really don’t think about anything else! And then you can leave, and start thinking about work again, but you’re kind of starting again with a fresh mind,” says Adena about her taekwondo sessions. This is especially valuable since, as Frances puts it “Work is always there. You never truly switch off from it.”

Veronique has had to put her passion for horse riding on hold in the last few years, as she focused on steering her organisation through a very difficult market context, but she recognises the cost: “I got to a point where I’m thinking about work 100% of the time. My brain never switches off. I need to do something I love and that absorbs me, to switch my brain off.”

Having and sharing a nonwork passion brings them closer to their employees. As Karen puts it: “I think it makes me real, everyone’s in their sweatpants, with their hair pulled back […] it helped with my overall leadership and I think it helped me engage with individuals and not be that big executive that people are uncomfortable talking to.”

They appreciate that their sports passion keeps them humble and grounded: “Riding is a separate world. You need a world where you are not a CEO,” says Veronique. “If you start to believe you get so much attention because of who you are, you’re just lying to yourself.” And Adena loves not being treated any differently in her taekwondo class: “Once class starts, everybody is wearing the same uniform, everybody is equal.” And there are, of course, the direct health benefits of sports.

But that is not all that an athletic passion brings to a woman leader. It may also help her perfect a very delicate balancing act: negotiating the masculine-feminine traits double bind increasingly recognised by research. The prevailing ideal for a leader is still made of stereotypically masculine values: competitiveness, dominance, assertiveness, self-confidence.

‘If you are a woman executive with a sports passion, it communicates to your followers that you have these stereotypically masculine values, in a direct, authentic manner.'

By contrast, the female values are kindness, nurturing, sensitivity, affection. A woman who leads thus becomes almost an oxymoron in the perception of her followers,  who will often resolve the confusion by labelling her either as pushy, if she is perceived as enacting mostly masculine behaviours at work, or a pushover, if she behaves in a consistently feminine manner.

The art of successful female leaders is to blend the two types of apparently contradictory behaviors. Far from sacrificing authenticity, they skillfully underline it. As many cohorts of executives enrolled in LBS leadership programmes have learned from professor Rob Goffee, authenticity in leadership is about being “yourself – more – with skill”.

How can a sports passion help? Sports develop and convey stereotypically masculine values: self-confidence, winning, risk-taking, self-control. Karolina: “I think it is very hard for women at work. We have to always prove that we can, that we are able, and the sport gives me this kind of strength and it’s a kind of proof, “look, I can set my mind on, and achieve, great results”. Says Karen: “it gives you that freedom, that sense of purposeful power.”

Adena sees taekwondo as promoting self-reliance, an essential trait for top leaders. Frances remembers the terror of looking down a dangerous slope, earlier on in her skiing career, and how she had realised it’s a perfect metaphor for leadership: “you have to have the willingness to throw yourself off the top of the mountain, otherwise you’ll never progress.”

If you are a woman executive with a sports passion, it communicates to your followers that you have these stereotypically masculine values, in a direct, authentic manner (one cannot fake running eight-minute miles).

They can therefore perceive full consistency between your private self (now a blend of feminine traits, associated with the mother and wife roles, and of masculine traits, associated with the sports role) and your work self (an artful mix of feminine and masculine traits). And this perceived consistency is needed for trust, an essential ingredient for leading effectively.

This may also be the reason why so many female executives who have a sports hobby find that it helps male leaders relate to them better. Karen: “it gave me another kind of conversation to have with the men, […] something to have an interesting conversation about.” Adena recognises that her martial arts credentials are a great ice-breaker and make men “feel more comfortable” around her. Karolina: “It helps me talk with male clients”.

Networking is essential for an effective leader, and women leaders can use anything that brings them closer to the overwhelmingly male population at the top: “The most difficult thing in being a woman in this type of position is that you are on your own” says Veronique.

“You are different. The disproportion between men and women is huge. You are a flamingo in a sea of penguins. For younger women leaders, the hurdle is even bigger: “When I went to meetings and I had my co-founder with me who was a scientist and a man older than me, even though I was the CEO and I gave the presentation, they would rather talk to him and not talk to me” recalls Sandra, who was 26 when she became CEO of Platome Biotech. Having (and communicating) a sports passion can help melt some of the ice in these encounters.

In short, female executives could strengthen their leadership with the following recipe: first blend masculine and feminine behaviors in your leadership style; follow with a dash of well-timed communication about your feminine traits, at work; then infuse some masculinity in your non-work self by having a passionate athletic interest.

And prominent women leaders do not stop here: they top it all off by communicating their sports-inspired leadership lessons in a perfectly balanced feminine-masculine manner: “Grace under pressure” is Karen’s mantra. Veronique’s motto (after renowned general L’Hotte, a passionate equestrian) is “En avant, calme et droit” .

Of course, sports are not the only way to achieve that careful blend of masculine and feminine values that women leaders need to project. Take Phebe Novakovic, CEO of General Dynamics, a $50 billion company. Phebe doesn’t need a sports passion to signal a steely personal self: she is a former CIA operative.

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